The Cleveland Browns are entering the second year of the Deshaun Watson Era. This will be the first season fans get to see him under center for a full season. As the best quarterback the Cleveland Browns have had in years, their offense should yield significant fantasy points across many positions. So, let’s take a look at what that means for the most notable players.
Cleveland Browns Fantasy Football Preview
Key Subtractions and Additions
Subtractions: Jadeveon Clowney (DE), Kareem Hunt (RB), Jacoby Brissett (QB)
Additions: Elijah Moore (WR), Dalvin Tomlinson (DT), Za’Darius Smith (LB), Juan Thornhill (S), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (DE), Jordan Akins (TE), Cedric Tillman (Rookie WR)
Deshaun Watson is entering the second year of his five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract. Last season, he served an 11-game suspension as a result of over two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct. From strictly a football perspective, this is Watson’s first off-season without anything in the way of him starting Week 1 for the Cleveland Browns. That’s good news for this offense.
Deshaun Watson will be 28 years old this September. He does have a history of two ACL tears, one in each knee. However, Watson is nearly nine years removed from the first tear in college and six years from the second, from his rookie season. Since then, he’s averaging nearly six rushing attempts per game. That’s a 17-game pace of 102 attempts. Only five quarterbacks rushed more than 102 times in 2022. All of them finished inside the top-10 fantasy quarterbacks on a points-per-game basis.
Deshaun Watson has an average of 22.3 fantasy points per game in 52 games as the starting quarterback of the Houston Texans. In six games with the Cleveland Browns, after his suspension, he averaged less than 15 points per game. The Browns are adding wide receiver Elijah Moore to Watson’s arsenal of weapons. He joins a pass catching group of Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and David Njoku.
Especially given the financial commitment to Watson, I expect the Cleveland Browns to approach the 2023 season with a pass-heavy approach. Watson’s rushing upside and strong group of receivers, give him a clear-cut, top-10 upside in fantasy football. It’s something he’s done every year of his career.
Kareem Hunt is one of the most notable exits in free agency from the Cleveland Browns. He accounts for 123 carries, second to Nick Chubb’s 302, from last season. No other Browns running back had more than eight carries in 2022.
Behind Nick Chubb on the current Cleveland Browns roster are Jerome Ford, Demetric Felton, and John Kelly. Next off-season, the Browns will save $12 million against the salary cap while only taking on a $4 million dead cap hit if they move on from Nick Chubb. Since he doesn’t have a lot of competition for carries in their backfield, and it’s likely his last season in Cleveland, I fully expect Chubb to log 300 or more touches again in 2023, mostly in the form of carries.
Even with just 37 receptions in 2022, he was the RB8 from last fantasy football season with an average of 16.1 points per game. He is a volume-based RB1 who has another good opportunity to lead the league in rushing. I do expect more passing from this 2022 offense, but that’s not something I expect Chubb to be involved in much. Still, he should still feast in the red zone as the primary ball carrier with a good shot at scoring double-digit touchdowns. He’s not an exciting pick, but one of the best pure runners in the league and a RB1 candidate nonetheless for fantasy football.
Amari Cooper is the clear top target from the Cleveland Browns’ 2022 passing game. His 132 targets give him a 26% target share on the season. Of course, Deshaun Watson stepping in for Jacoby Brissett was a significant impact on the offense. In six games with Watson, Cooper’s target share dipped slightly to 22.9% with an average of just under seven per game.
Similarly to Nick Chubb, it financially makes sense for 2023 to be Cooper’s last season with the Cleveland Browns. The team will save $20 million against the cap if he’s released after June 1st, 2024. So, one could infer that 2023 third-round draft pick, Cedric Tillman, is a possible replacement for Cooper as soon as next season. He’s a strong, physical receiver who is capable of doing so.
The biggest move of the Cleveland Browns offense is trading for Elijah Moore from the New York Jets. Cleveland moved a second-round pick in order to so. Deshaun Watson will be the best quarterback Moore has played with yet in his young NFL career. He notably caught a touchdown pass from four different quarterbacks during his rookie season with the Jets.
Then there’s Donovan Peoples-Jones who’s proven to be more than just a deep threat. His 18.9% 2022 target share likely takes a hit with the addition of Moore. Outside of a projected WR2 ceiling for Amari Cooper, I expect Moore and DPJ to be plug-and-play flex options with WR3 upside. There’s a lot of mouths to feed in this offense and I think it runs primarily through Cooper and Chubb, though Moore’s rapport with Watson is something to watch in training camp.
David Njoku is coming off of one of his best seasons ever. His 2022 stats are almost identical to his 2018 season with the Cleveland Browns. Both times he averaged over 9.0 fantasy points which, for a fantasy tight end, is a borderline TE1. Only 15 tight ends did so during the 2022 fantasy football season.
It’s worth noting Jordan Akins is joining the 2023 Cleveland Browns offense. He played with quarterback Deshaun Watson on the Houston Texans from 2018-2020. During that time, Akins averaged 2.86 targets per game. It’s not a significant amount in the grand scheme of things, but could cut into Njoku’s opportunity just enough to hinder his ability to finish as a TE1 again.
Outside of Akins, David Njoku will continue to battle Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and now Elijah Moore, for targets. There aren’t many options to begin with to confidently start in fantasy football at tight end. I think Njoku still projects as a low-end TE1 for that reason, but I’m not as confident about it as I was before this off-season.
The 2023 Cleveland Browns defense produced five games of double-digit fantasy points in 2022. Even so, they come in as the 12th-best fantasy defense on a points-per-game basis. That speaks to how low scoring the other 11 games were for this unit.
The Browns added new pieces to the defense. They need all of the help they can get in a division with Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson. Playing the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens twice a year each is enough for me to fade this defense in fantasy football. Like most teams, I’ll consider the Browns as week-to-week streamers in choice matchups throughout the season, but they’re probably not a top target.
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